Barefoot Running May Prevent Impact Load Imbalances on the Body

More evidence persuasively supports the certainty that barefoot running fits so nicely into the role of injury prevention in that aside from encouraging a significantly less impact-intensive foot strike in the form of a forefoot strike, running barefoot has proved effective in improving load balance, which is the distribution of workloads across an area.

Evidence has emerged that barefoot running can help you avoid damaging load imbalances by naturally improving ankle-joint stability and your sense of forces acting on the ankle joint. 

If load balancing is offset during running, this could lead to a radical shift in heavy, unwanted loads on the shins, knees, hips and lower back, placing more stress on these areas, thereby creating physical vulnerability to injury.  Not to mention, more intensive effort is now needed to counteract the effect of this and this negative effect is also amplified with increased running speed and volume,making a bad situation even worse! 

Barefoot Running May Prevent Impact Load Imbalances on the Body
On the research side, work and impact load balancing was found to be strongly influenced by mechanics at the foot/ankle complex during running which in turn was found to be strongly influenced by footwear, or lack thereof. Because there’s no underfoot mechanical interferences (cushioning) when running barefoot, the foot can connect directly and more naturally with the ground. Not to mention, your reflexes and muscular control at the lower leg are more responsive, affording you stronger ankle and footstep stability.

A popular explanation as to why barefoot runners exhibit greater ankle stability than many shod (shoe) runners is that in addition to minimal underfoot mechanical interferences, running barefoot immediately improves awareness of joint position sense, sense of joint velocity and the sense of forces acting on the joints in the leg and foot. All this heightened awareness stems from the heightened multisensory inputs acting on the underfoot which activate a range of muscular, neuromuscular and reflexive responses that offer faster and stronger mobility restrains at the ankle of which was found to be a core attribute to effective load balancing.

For instance, published studies by Dr. Steven Robbins, MD, demonstrated that optimal load balancing was strongly associated with increases in ankle stability which was strongly influenced by underfoot tactile sensory feedback which was found to be optimized more fully when barefoot as compared with thickly cushioned running shoes. His work also found that you’re all the more likely to have balance impairments with increased underfoot cushioning because it greatly diminishes underfoot tactile sensory feedback, in consequence, may mess with the proprioceptive (joint and limb position sense) circuitry which in turn may impair foot position and postural precision and may blur awareness of foot strike intensity (how hard your foot hits the pavement).

Ground-Feel Affects Underfoot Nerve Function

Of significance, according to Dr. Steven Robins work, the more you wear thickly cushioned shoes, the more it may spur on the gradual decline or degeneration of underfoot sensory receptors (plantar proprioceptors) which can further lead to greater load imbalances and abnormal redistribution of heavy impact pressures across the foot and leg while running. This is because thickly cushioned running shoes may be primarily responsible for the loss of function of many plantar sensory nerves by significantly reducing underfoot stimuli thresholds, leaving a number of under-stimulated plantar sensory nerves ~ If you don’t use them, you lose them!

Barefoot Running May Prevent Impact Load Imbalances on the Body

  • Robbins uncovered that the degree of underfoot stimulation affects the degree to which the plantar sensory receptors are active whereby being barefoot stimulates directly mostly all plantar sensory receptors which did more to limit ankle instability than thick cushioned running shoes.
  • Robbins found that effective load balancing as well as impact-moderating behavior were maintained at safer levels under barefoot conditions as compared with thickly shod (shoe) conditions, suggesting that barefoot runners may be better at avoiding high impact landings  while making a more steadied, natural connection with the ground because of the improved sensory nerve feedback at the plantar surface.
  • Most consequential, poorly stimulated plantar proprioceptors was largely to blame for impaired footstep stability in thickly cushioned running shoes of which the knee now has to work harder to assist in a more central control of ankle-joint stability. AND when plantar sensory input is cut off and footstep stability suffers, we’ve seen what can happen in this scenario is that load imbalance may also be amplified.

The Take Home Message

These findings are consistent with other evidence showing that you’re more likely to have better stability control when you can feel the ground more fully at your feet and that the sensory-led footstep stability you get when barefoot delivers results we can all point to, such as reducing workload burdens on the leg, especially at the knee. But what’s not in doubt is that this line of evidence strongly demonstrates that in running, protection from impact is possible, not with increased underfoot cushioning, but with the sensory assistance when barefoot. This is why you’ll always have much more to gain by incorporating more barefoot running into your training.


References:

Dyck, P. J., Classen, S. M., and Stevens, J. C.,Assessment of nerve damage in the fed of long-distance runners. Mayo Clin. Pruc.,62, 568-572, 1987.

Robbins, S. E. and Waked. E. G., Humans amplify impact to compensate for instability caused by shoe sole materials, Arch. Phys. Mea. Rehabil., 78; 46l-467, 1997.

Robbins SE and Waked E. Foot position awareness: the effect of footwear on instability, excessive impact, and ankle spraining. Clin Reviews in Phys Rehab Med, 1997;9(1):53-74.


If you’ve enjoyed this content, you’ll LOVE my content over at my YouTube channel, here, where I go into greater detail about the health and performance benefits of barefoot running. I also talk about the research on heel strike vs forefoot strike running!


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Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!